“GIVE ME MORE!” I insist, pounding my fist on the gleaming steel of the outdoor dining table. Above us, the stars glimmer through the nanoparticle haze that keeps us safe from the ruined atmosphere. Across the table from me, my brother Ash’s eyes twinkle.
“The priests say our ancestors ruined the planet that way, Rowan. More, more, always more, until the Earth couldn’t give any more and she died.” He grins. He’s teasing me, I know, but I see the secret shudder that always makes his body tremble when he thinks of the Ecofail. He is an avid temple-goer, and spends hours on his knees in penance for the acts of our ancestors. Not that it does much good. The atmosphere is as broken as ever, the world is dead, and only the tender care of the EcoPanopticon keeps us alive now. Praying will never make a tree grow in this world again. The Earth is dead, but we still survive.
Of course, I’ve never been to temple. Maybe if I had I wouldn’t be such a cynic. But then, I haven’t been anywhere in the last sixteen years. At least, not officially. You see, I don’t exist.
I might as well be a figment of my twin brother’s imagination. If I were, I think he would have gone inside and fallen asleep long ago. Figments are easier to shake than I am. Ash knows I never give up. Through long habit—and Mom’s insistence—he is used to devoting a good chunk of every day to my persistent questions.
For a girl who doesn’t exist, I can be a pain in the neck. Or so Ash tells me almost every day.
I smile wickedly at my brother. “More!” I tell him again. When he hesitates, I spring on him, toppling him backward. The chair thuds on the thick carpet of moss that my mother so carefully maintains. Ash tries to roll out of the way, but we’re the same height, and much to his embarrassment I’m a little bit stronger than he is. “More!” I shout as I pin him down. “Tell me more!” I begin to tickle him, and he squirms until we are both near hysterical.
“That’s enough,” comes the gentle voice of our mother from the veranda. “Do you want the neighbors to hear?”
That quiets us quickly. Even though there is almost no chance of our laughter penetrating the high, thick stone walls around my family’s compound, it would be a disaster if anyone knew I was here. Oh, Mom could probably pass the girlish laughter off as coming from one of Ash’s visiting friends—even though we almost never have visitors. (When we do, I have to run to one of the many hidden nooks and walled-off secret chambers my parents have improvised all through the house.) But there is always the chance some nosy neighbor will check the regional scans and put two and two together. That would be the end of me. Literally.
I help Ash to his feet and sit down across from him. In a more decorous voice I do what I do every day: I beg him to tell me more about the world outside the family compound. I’m not just hungry for all the experiences I’m missing out on. I’m starving. Ravenous.
“What did Lark wear today when she changed out of her school uniform?” Lark is the girl my brother has a crush on, and I’m fascinated with her. The way he describes her makes her seem so real to me, almost as if she were my friend, too. Almost as if I were a real person. I know that if we ever met, we’d be instantly close.
Every afternoon when Ash comes home I quiz him about every detail of his day. Academics I learn on my own from vids and datablocks. I’m more interested in the people. The tiniest details enrapture me. Did your Environmental History professor flirt with the headmaster today? Did the autoloop attendant smile when she scanned your eyes on the way to school? Did Brook chew his lavercakes with his mouth open again? These are the friends I will never have, and I love them all.
Unfortunately, Ash isn’t always good at the details I crave. When I ask what Lark wore, he only says, “Er, something yellow.”
“Bright yellow? Pale yellow?” I press eagerly. “Lemon or buttercup or sunshine?” Of course, no one has seen lemons or buttercups since before the Ecofail.
“I dunno, just kind of medium yellow, I guess.”
“Er . . .”
I fling myself dramatically back in the chair. “Ugh, you’re useless!”
Ash, bless him, can never quite understand how all those things that are so trivial to him can mean the world to me. He does his best, he really does. But it’s never good enough. Between the two of us we’re trying to build a shadow life for a shadow girl. I have to be ready for the glorious day I will finally emerge into the light. If that day ever comes. Mom and Dad always assure me it will, someday. Sixteen years of assurances later, someday still hasn’t arrived.
I look at my brother as he struggles to recall the details of his day so I can feel like I am a part of the real world. He is my mirror, almost exactly like me. He has the same night-dark hair, the strong chin softened by a dimple, the light bronze skin. He’s told me that he doesn’t like his face, that his features are too delicate for a boy. Maybe, if I knew more of the world, I’d think my face was too strong for a girl.
Our main difference is in our jaws, I think. In both of us they are sharply angled and strong. But when Ash worries about something, he works his jaw like he’s chewing on the problem, like it’s a tough nut he’s trying to crack. (I learned about nuts in an Environmental History vid. Food, growing on trees—can you imagine?)
Me, when I’m upset my jaw gets tight and still. I just clench my teeth until the muscles in my cheeks ache.
Been clenching my jaw a lot lately.
There are two other obvious differences between us, other than our gender, of course. Ash’s eyes are a flat reflective blue-gray, like our mother’s. Mine are a strange, shifting color that seems to alternate from green to blue to gold, depending on the light. When I look closely in a mirror, I can see a starburst of amber in the middle of the blue, flecks and streaks like meteors shooting across an azure sky.
My eyes would give me away in a heartbeat, if anyone ever saw them. Soon after birth, children have their eyes corrected with lens implants. This is because human eyes have evolved to withstand exposure to certain wavelengths of light. Now that the atmosphere is damaged, we’re exposed to increased low-band ultraviolet radiation, which can harm untreated eyes. The surgery implants a filter that protects everyone’s eyes from the rays. It takes a long time to cause damage, but if someone doesn’t get the surgery they will eventually go blind. I haven’t noticed any damage yet, but I’m told around thirty my vision will start to dim. The filter is coded to identify every resident of Eden with a quick scan.